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Tate Britain to be transformed in £45m project aimed to protect the works and please the guests

Millions needed to stop leaks, control humidity and open up the rotunda of the Victorian building

Tate Britain has raised £30m towards a £45m major refurbishment of the south-east part of the building. This will upgrade galleries used to display 20th-century art, which are now in urgent need of renovation. Tate admits that in the older south-east quadrant “gallery roofs leak and environmental controls are poor”.

Although the scheme by architects Caruso St John will not be unveiled until November, we can reveal the key elements. Most importantly, conditions will be improved in eight galleries dating from 1897-99. The project is the most pressing priority for Penelope Curtis, who took over as Tate Britain director in April.

One of the main aims is to improve circulation in the building, which has grown with a series of extensions since its opening in 1897. With 1.6m visitors in 2009-10, public facilities also need upgrading.

The first major change will be the central rotunda, which is to have a contemporary-style circular staircase descending to the lower floor, in the area currently occupied by the café. The former café space will also include a display area for art and related archival material. The café will be moved to a front part of the lower level (now used for offices and education), with some outdoor seating facing the front garden. Educational facilities are to be improved.

On the main level of the rotunda, the original 1897 spiral staircase leading to the upper level has long been closed to visitors. It will be reopened, allowing access to the balcony overlooking the rotunda on the upper level and providing space for a members’ room. The adjacent River Room, which was originally used to display watercolours, was subdivided to provide a boardroom and offices in 1928. It will be reopened as a space for events and seminars.

Natural light will be reinstated in the galleries. When opened in 1897-99, most of the rooms were covered in Tynecastle tapestry, a moulded paper resembling fabric. Soon after its opening, the corner octagonal gallery was painted in deep crimson, at the request of G.F. Watts, whose paintings were hung there. It has been decided not to revert to these dark walls, since this would limit the type of art that could be displayed there. Instead they are likely to be painted in white, which is appropriate for 20th-century paintings and sculpture.

Sections of the roofing of the older galleries are no longer watertight and leak during rainstorms, partly because the slates are perishing. During an incident in 2004, a large Francis Bacon triptych, Two Figures on a Bed With Attendants, 1968, on loan from the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, had to be removed because of water dripping down the wall in room 24.

Environmental conditions in the eight south-east galleries are poor. There is no air conditioning in these spaces which limits the type of art that can be displayed and could potentially damage works. This explains why early English panel paintings are shown in the north-west quadrant, which was upgraded in 2000 during a £32m project that included a new entrance named after Sir Edwin Manton, the late businessman who donated £10m, as well as temporary exhibition galleries.

There is also a problem with floor loading in the older galleries, which is inadequate for heavy sculptures and very large numbers of people. Some of the rooms have a load bearing which is below the recommended level for art galleries. All the flooring will be replaced and reinforced.

The plans have involved a compromise between preserving heritage aspects of the grade II* listed building and improving facilities. As a gallery statement explains: “The social value of Tate’s mission to provide public access to art and to care for its collection is the overriding value of Tate Britain, so this needs to be weighed in balance with the loss of significant historic fabric when considering proposals to alter the building.” The exterior will remain essentially the same, but with some modifications, such as new doorways onto the garden.

While work is underway on the lower level it is possible that this could lead to the discovery of part of the boundary wall of the former Millbank Penitentiary, which was demolished in 1892.

Planning permission for Tate Britain was granted in July. Work on the south-east quadrant is due to start next February, for completion by 2013. It will mean the temporary closure of the eight galleries for around a year. Some of the works currently on show there will be displayed in other galleries, Tate Modern and elsewhere.

The £30m raised towards the £45m project has all come from private donors, with none so far from the government or the Heritage Lottery Fund. It is the first phase of the “Transforming Tate Britain” scheme. Phase two aims to upgrade the south-west of the Millbank site.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Time to fix the roof of Tate Britain'